By Jessica Faulds | 26 September 2007
I haven’t heard enough music, haven’t seen enough beauty, haven’t done enough drugs. I haven’t partied hard enough. I haven’t suffered. I have not done the requisite living needed to parse the labels of freak-folk, psych-rock, experimental, noise, electronic, ambient, drone, and goddamn Brian Wilsonishness that trail this and every Animal Collective release and are jettisoned after a few listens because they don’t fit anymore, nor to trace every hairline crack latticed over the pillars of context and history and human experience that support this album. I’m not delicate enough to weigh cultural significance. I can’t — I don’t want to try to quantify the art-ness of Strawberry Jam.
So let’s just not. Terms like “zeitgeist” and “paradigm” were already bandied about dangerously when Radiohead released Kid A (2000), and I don’t want to go pulling them out again just as the air clears. Yeah, I’ve got a feeling in the pit of my stomach that Strawberry Jam might be kind of “important”, or at least something to mark down for your best-of-year list, and so I ought to be discussing what it all means, where it fits. I know talking about killer hooks, which Strawberry Jam’s got, seems a little puerile when you stack it up against the A-bomb (referring here to “art,” not “Kid”), but when it’s just you, your headphones, and the long trudge to the bus stop, hooks start to seem a little more significant. And if that’s not reason enough to discuss the immediate likeability of this record rather than its teleological thrust towards some unknowable future music, consider this: the sugar-coated moments actually are what make this album progressive, at least for this particular band. If Strawberry Jam isn’t Animal Collective’s Kid A, it’s only because the Collective never wrote a “Creep.” Instead, their transformation is coming from the opposite direction. The music is traveling from some distant hazy atonality, to where it now rests poised at the edge of lucidity, one toe over the line.
So yeah, Strawberry Jam might be art, but more interestingly, Strawberry Jam might be pop. Okay, avant-pop. Pop’s impish little brother who found a canister of nitrous oxide at the playground, whatever. This is Animal Collective’s most confectionary album yet. Just listen to the bouncy vocal line in “Fireworks” or the delirious chorus of “Winter Wonder Land” and feel the genre hierarchy crumble around you.
Me, I’m cool with it. I grew up with a mean older sister who made me listen to Lightning Bolt and a little brother whose Mario-stickered stereo pumped Spice Girls five hours a day. On my iTunes, Animal Collective is sandwiched between Akron/Family and Aqua. I am comfortable where these worlds collide. If asked to point out the exact point of impact on this record, I’d go with “Fireworks,” which happens to land right in the middle of the album. The song is a near-perfect hybridization of formlessness and instant appeal. It yields instant pleasure, yet shirks classifications like “chorus” and “bridge.” It even seems to acknowledge its own dichotomous predicament, its unlikely suspension between simplicity and sophistication. “We watch the fireworks that frighten the babies,” Avey Tare sings, making it clear that while watching fireworks may be an uncomplicated, almost primal pleasure, you’ve got to grow up and learn a little about the world before you can appreciate them.
So “Fireworks” is kind of like fireworks, and everything makes neat sense. This is progress (of sorts) from Animal Collective. The band themselves seem to be trying to introduce a kind of (extremely loose) order to the gush of verbiage emanating from each song. While the lyrics as a whole still sound like shamanistic channeling, there is a kind of emotional sense to non-sequiturs like “I feel ugly / Feel my pulse.” And amongst the unfiltered rambling are embedded moments of wry clarity, statements like, “Bulimic vegetarian wins weight contest,” or banter that seems to mock all of humanity: “If you don’t believe you’re dying / Then don’t believe you’re dying / Do you not believe you’re dying just because it gets you down?” It’s an unexpected dose of reality from a band of eccentrics.
This move towards — I have to be honest, very slight — lyrical clarity is just another symptom of Animal Collective’s unusual progression. As with the music, the lyrics signal a slight shift in the band’s evolution in the direction of accessibility. This is a relief, because this is the Animal Collective’s “electronic album,” and somehow, the “electronic album” always becomes conflated with indecipherability. (Cough, Radiohead’s fourth record.) It’s like modular synths melt the part of the brain that knows words. Animal Collective, however, have always been indecipherable. I think they’ve probably always known how to program a synth too, so their brains remain intact, and their electronic album contains contemplations, free-associations, and vivid descriptions rather than repetitious phrases that only sound meaningful when stuttered over big sonic whooshes.
Speaking of which, the restraint shown in these move toward electronic instrumentation is impressive. Never are the songs overwrought with unnecessary sine wave manipulation. The chopped up chord pulses in “Unsolved Mysteries” are an exaggerated take on the four-on-the-floor timekeeping of old big bands like the Count Basie Orchestra. And in Strawberry Jam’s last track, the sweet “Derek,” a drum pattern that enters halfway in sounds like a giant mecha-cheerleader doing a clap-stomp routine, not just because of the rhythmic patterning, but also because Animal Collective have managed to imbue their electronics with a sense of humanity. Inasmuch as cheerleaders are human.
I could go on, could try to depict Avey Tare’s vocal disintegrations, explain the tissue-paper layering of sounds, try to describe just what it is that makes these songs so amorphously catchy. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned “For Reverend Green,” and I probably should have. But in the end, it wouldn’t make much difference. We all know a novel’s worth of exposition won’t be able place a melody in your head, and it’s the presence of these melodies, after all, that makes this record so remarkable. Just listen to it.